Lawyers for President Obama had prepared a short list of potential replacements for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens long before he officially announced his retirement today.
Stevens signaled in the fall that he was considering retirement, which gave White House lawyers plenty of time to rework the list of potential nominees that had been created when Justice David Souter announced his retirement in May 2009 and vet new possibilities.
The crucial calculation that Obama will have to make is what kind of political capital he wants to spend on potentially contentious nomination hearings. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have signaled that a candidate with a paper trail on divisive social issues could create a firestorm.
The president will review nominees, read their legal writings and perhaps meet with some of them. A decision will be made "in the coming weeks," a senior White House official told ABC News.
Democrats are hoping to schedule the hearings by mid-July in order to vote before senators leave for the August recess to prepare, in some cases, for the mid-term elections.
According to White House sources, Obama has a list of fewer than 10 possible nominees to review. Among them: Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Judge Diane Wood and Judge Merrick Garland.
Top candidates went through extensive vetting last year before Obama settled on Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The short list then included Wood, Kagan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
A name that has gotten a lot of attention since the Souter retirement is Garland.
Elena Kagan, 49, serves as the president's solicitor general. She is known as one of the finest scholars in the country, dazzling both liberal and conservative friends with her intellectual prowess and her ability to find consensus among ideological opposites.
Judge Diane Wood, 59, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1995. She has a wide array of job experiences away from the bench, including positions in the U.S. government at the departments of State and Justice, and as a teacher at the University of Chicago. While at the university, she played a key role in developing policies on sexual harassment and maternity leave. Unlike Kagan, Wood has had to wrestle with hot-button issues such as abortion. Potential confirmation hearings would be lively and controversial.
Judge Merrick Garland, 58, a graduate of Harvard Law School and former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. He sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, 52, enjoys a close relationship with the president and would be an "outside the judicial box" candidate, but may be roundly criticized for her comments after the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, who attempted to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight with explosives. Napolitano initially told ABC News, "Once the incident occurred, the system worked." A day later, she had a slightly different message on NBC News: "Our system did not work in this instance," she said. Obama later ordered an extensive review.